Global measles cases up 300 per cent year-on-year

The vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) is given to one-year-old Bella Huang in Seattle, Washington.
PHOTO: Reuters

GENEVA - Measles cases rose 300 per cent worldwide through the first three months of 2019 compared to the same period last year, the UN said on Monday (April 15), as concern grows over the impact of anti-vaccination stigma.

Measles, which is highly contagious, can be entirely prevented through a two-dose vaccine, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) has in recent months sounded the alarm over slipping global vaccination rates.

"Preliminary global data shows that reported cases rose by 300 per cent in the first three months of 2019, compared to the same period in 2018. This follows consecutive increases over the past two years," it said in a statement.

"While this data is provisional and not yet complete, it indicates a clear trend. Many countries are in the midst of sizeable measles outbreaks, with all regions of the world experiencing sustained rises in cases," WHO further said.

The agency noted that only about one in 10 actual measles cases are reported, meaning the early trends for 2019 likely underestimate the severity of the outbreaks.

Higher rates of the disease - which can kill a child or leave it blind, deaf or brain-damaged - have been recorded in all regions, the United Nations agency said.

Fresh outbreaks have hit the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Myanmar, the Philippines, Sudan, Thailand and Ukraine, "causing many deaths - mostly among young children", the WHO said.

So far this year, 170 countries have reported 112,163 measles cases to WHO. At this time last year, 163 countries had reported 28,124 cases.

"Over recent months, spikes in case numbers have also occurred in countries with high overall vaccination coverage, including the United States of America as well as Israel, Thailand, and Tunisia, as the disease has spread fast among clusters of unvaccinated people," the WHO statement said.

US federal health officials said on Monday the number of confirmed cases of measles in the United States this year jumped by nearly 20 per cent in the week ended April 11 - the country's second-worst outbreak in nearly two decades.

A growing and vocal fringe of parents in the United States oppose measles vaccines in the belief, contrary to scientific evidence, that ingredients in the vaccines can cause autism or other disorders.

New York's mayor declared a public health emergency in parts of Brooklyn last week, after a measles outbreak emerged in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, where some had resisted vaccination on religious grounds.

WHO said that the most dramatic rise in cases - a 700-per cent increase compared to last year - has been reported in Africa, which has weaker vaccination coverage than other regions.

Increasing vaccination coverage maximises a population's protection, the WHO said.

Global coverage with the first dose has "stalled" at 85 per cent, against 95 per cent needed to prevent outbreaks, while 25 countries still do not include a second dose in their national programmes, it said.

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